Nikki Haley insisted all along that she had no desire to become Donald Trump’s secretary of state. But with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, in line to succeed Rex Tillerson as the State Department’s top dog, Haley may soon find that her thinking was a big mistake.
Haley asked Trump right from the start not to send her to the State Department, pleading a lack of experience. But for some inscrutable reason, she claimed enough expertise for the United Nations posting. So far, she has led a charmed life as Trump’s ambassador. At her suggestion, Trump made her part of his cabinet — an anomaly in Republican administrations — and also gave her a seat on the National Security Council, granting her an unusually high profile in the foreign policy world.
Now ensconced in Turtle Bay, she has tirelessly and unapologetically used her position to promote her “brand,” reaching out to both general audiences and key political constituencies, particularly those tied to touchstone conservative causes like promoting isolationism and America First, boosting Israel, slashing foreign aid and attacking the UN bureaucracy.
She has also sought out the major TV talk and news shows, which provide her with tightly controlled environments, ample audiences and a pipeline to opinion makers.
What she lacks in strategic thinking she makes up for with a bold speaking style and an approachable manner. All of this has stoked talk of her ambitions for higher office, including the vice presidency or even the presidency.
At the same time, the UN’s location in New York City, 222 miles beyond the Washington Beltway, has let her bask in the spotlight as she steers clear of the nonstop chaos, backbiting and bloodletting in the Trump White House.
She was even allowed to publicly defend the growing group of women accusing the president of inappropriate sexual behavior, saying their allegations deserved to be aired. “Women who accuse anyone should be heard,” she said on “Face the Nation,” the CBS talk show. “They should be heard and they should be dealt with.” Trump let the moment pass without comment.
“I get to serve the country I love without dealing with a whole lot of drama,” she candidly remarked in November when asked for the umpteenth time why she was not pushing for a move to Foggy Bottom.
But the situation will surely be different for her with Tillerson out of the way. Not to mention the arrival of John Bolton, whom Trump just named as his national security adviser, succeeding H.R. McMaster on April 9. This latest round of Trump administration musical chairs could propel her feet first into a black hole.
Haley so far has had more experience as a leader than as a follower. Before joining Trump, she served as a member of the South Carolina House and was twice elected governor, the state’s first female chief executive. But even while playing up her independence at the UN, she has highlighted her loyalty to Trump, playing the supportive and well-behaved underling. She appears to faithfully parrot even the president’s most contentious stances — Iran, North Korea and Jerusalem, among the most prominent examples — with no visible hesitation or embarrassment.
Yet she claims — and regularly exercises — a highly unusual independence, insisting the president has given her the “flexibility” to craft her own policies, as long as she doesn’t stray too far off the reservation. When Tillerson tried at one point to pressure her into clearing her public remarks with his people before uttering them, she ignored him. Tillerson declined to press the matter and Trump did not object. Indeed, when asked who Haley reports to, the State Department press office said she served in a “Cabinet-level position.”
But Tillerson was a most unusual secretary of state, steering clear of the president, actively avoiding the media and shunning public attention even when pushing his own agenda. He certainly never appeared to try too hard to shut down those who disagreed with him. Trump repeatedly attacked the Iran nuclear deal despite Tillerson’s pleas that it be kept in place. And in a particularly humiliating tweet for everyone involved, the president told Tillerson he was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” after the secretary of state called for nuclear disarmament talks with North Korean President Kim Jong Un. (Trump, of course, later agreed to direct talks with Kim without first consulting with Tillerson. Go figure!)
Bolton, it seems, will pose a much greater challenge to Haley’s Washington standing. As a White House staffer rather than a cabinet member, his appointment is not subject to Senate confirmation, and he likely will end up closest to the president among his top national security policymakers. As a wily bureaucratic infighter who loves to conduct his own foreign policy and whose opinions largely coincide with those of Trump, he is likely to thrive, operating in the shadows, free of congressional oversight, under a leader who is anything but a details man.
And while Haley uses her day job to at least pay lip service to international action in an interdependent world, Bolton is an original America-Firster. He spent his time as George W. Bush’s UN ambassador, from August 2005 to December 2006, doing what he could to undermine the UN and Kofi Annan, the secretary-general then. The Senate refused to confirm Bolton for the job and he was forced to step down at the end of his recess appointment.
He opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has pushed Trump hard to tear up the Iran nuclear deal and has urged Israel to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program with bombs. He also favors a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. Should Trump go ahead with plans to meet with the North Korean president, any summit meeting should center mostly on determining “where U.S. cargo planes” could land to remove North Korea’s bombs, Bolton said.
After Trump fired Tillerson, he grumbled publicly that he and his secretary of state had not seen eye to eye on some key issues. Was this perhaps a not-so-subtle message to both Haley and Pompeo that he was growing tired of hearing about his aides’ “flexibility”?
Pompeo, on the other hand, is apparently a Trump whisperer, often invited to murmur his advice directly into the president’s ear. He is typically described as just as muscular as Trump in his policymaking. The main difference may be that Trump has seemed to pay attention to Pompeo while ignoring Tillerson. Given that kind of relationship with his new secretary of state, what are the odds the president will continue to let Haley speak her mind on “Meet the Press”?
Of course, like Haley, Pompeo has aspirations to higher office. Bolton too weighed a presidential run, in 2016, though it went nowhere. And because Trump is already deeply focused on his 2020 re-election prospects, you have to wonder how much blatant electioneering he will allow among his top officials. With his popularity ratings continuing to wallow in record lows, will there come a time in the not-so-distant future when these three will have to lower their public political profiles to reassure their boss they care only about his future and not theirs?
The coming months could well see Haley politically confined to a tiny corner of the foreign policy world as she is obliged to set her sights not on 2020 but on 2024. Not a great place to be for an ambitious and energetic aspirant for the highest offices in the land.